79 First to Damascus Jill, Duchess of Hamilton in half an hour a huge body of enemy horses and men were still storming towards them.
Would they come within range of the British machine-guns? The enemy horses slowed their pace, the dust dropped and the advance became cautious, slow.
Suddenly the Australians realised that a living screen of men was enveloping them.
A barrage of bullets filled the air.
Scouts galloped furiously towards the ridges in the rear for protection.
Then they relaxed a little.
It was all show.
The Turkish cavalry on their beautiful sure-footed Arab horses were followed by men, either dismounted or mounted, on camels and donkeys, some even on mares with foals at foot.
But instead of a cavalry attack, shells from mountain guns were screaming over the heads of the Allies, bursting close to the horses at the rear.
The position was now clearly untenable.
There was not one inch of cover for man or horse on the flattopped hill.
The Australians withdrew.
The Turks, drawing their swords, galloped in pursuit, to be quickly repulsed and driven back by machine-guns and two armoured cars.
But the enemy’s guns responded and continued to shell heavily.
Fighting continued in the dark.
Next morning the men began digging trenches.
Further north, in the town of Gaza itself, the Allied troops retreated.
And thus ended the second Battle of Gaza.
British losses were at least 6444 men against the Turkish losses of about 2,000 men.
In theory this battle should have been a walkover for the British, yet once again the Turks had beaten one of the most technologically advanced armies in the world.
The period that followed the two Gaza defeats, April to November 1917, was one of comparatively little fighting.
But the front still had to be held.
To do this, frequent reconnaissance and demonstrations against the Turks were carried out in the vast No Man’s Land between the British line and Palestine.
For the first few weeks the majority of troops were engaged in strenuous digging and wiring to make the line secure.
Their spirits, which had been already lowered with the two defeats, became frayed as temperatures increased with the summer and the earth got drier and dustier.
It was soon just a colourless brown area of powdery soil.
The vitality of the men was reduced not only by terrible heat but also an almost continuous fog of light dust that penetrated and smothered everything, including the lips, lungs and lining of the noses of the men and horses.
Again there was the constant problem of temporary sanitary arrangements in desert conditions for tens of thousands of men and horses.
There were no stones, no earth, just sand and more sand, and the tentacles of a straggly plant referred to as ‘camel weed’.
Each latrine, incinerator and grease-trap involved enormous amounts of digging.
Things improved when a large earth incinerator was dug and five-seater latrines and pits were replaced with portable buckets with fly-proof automatic lids.
Privacy was provided by galvanized iron and hessian sandbags.
Staying in the suffocating air with no change of scenery lowered morale even further.
Breaks were rare and facilities for recreation few.
The shortage of transport meant that leave out of the country could seldom be granted.
Socalled rest days were still spent watering and grooming the horses.
But suddenly food rations, and conditions generally improved and rest camps were opened by the ambulance brigade on a Mediterranean beach at Tel el Marakeb, and on the cliffs just to the north of Khan Yunus.
Even though everything was improvised for the men it was as welcome as the Ritz or the Savoy.
Tents were lashed together, and matting huts made instant recreation rooms.
A piano, 80 First to Damascus Jill, Duchess of Hamilton books, cards and a variety of games arrived from the Red Cross.
The surf was lacking but men could swim and wash themselves in the sea, there were no parades, and their only duty was to keep their beds tidy.
Following the success of this camp, a larger rest camp was formed at Port Said for all troops of the Desert Mounted Corps.
In just sixteen weeks, nearly 9000 men passed through these rest camps.
On 20 June the duties of the ambulance brigade were shared with a completely new medical unit, the Australian Camel Field Ambulance.
The tragic and dreadful second battle of Gaza coincided with three events that were to directly and indirectly shape the Palestine and Syria campaign: the Russian Revolution, which took Russia out of the war and caused the contents of the Sykes–Picot agreement to be made public; the appointment of Allenby to the Middle East campaign; and the gathering of representatives from the British Empire at the Imperial War Conference, which held fourteen meetings between 20 March and 2 May.
These meetings led to new thinking – that Palestine could be a crossroads of the British Empire.
The 300-year-old Romanov dynasty had ended when the Tsar abdicated a week after revolution broke out in Russia on 8 March 1917.
The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin (whose brother had been executed by Tsar Nicolas’s father), then overturned the moderate provisional government.
In the Tsar’s office, many secret papers were found.
One bundle was already irrelevant – papers relating to Sazonov’s 1915 agreement with the British over the distribution of Turkish territory to Russia.
The other papers, however, the agreement made by Monsieur Georges Picot and Sir Mark Sykes, had a stinging relevance to the present.
Realising that the Arabs had no inkling of the British promising their lands to the French – and knowing about the earlier correspondence between Hussein and McMahon – the Bolsheviks decided to leak the contents.
This would affect not only Arab attitudes to the British but also Anglo–French dealings, as the French were unaware of agreements made with the Arabs by the British.
Morgan Price Phillips, the distinguished Russian correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, was allowed to borrow the documents until the next day.
He worked through the night translating them and cabled the contents to Manchester.
The editor, having managed to get these damning words past the censor, published them in full at the end of November 1917.
But for some reason they had little impact at the time.
The Times decided not to embarrass the government further by giving details of the papers’ content, but they were also published in the Russian revolutionary paper, Izvestia.
The Turks, seeing the agreements as an example of Christian treachery, ensured that the Arabs were quickly made aware of them.
As predicted, the faith of the Arabs in the British was destroyed and Lawrence had to explain to Feisal and the other Arabs why the British had double-crossed them.
However, without British gold the Arabs would not be able to pay their troops, buy bullets or guns or have the support of aeroplanes, so they had little choice but to continue fighting with the British – and hope that circumstances and time would override the agreement.
In addition, they would not have had any chance of victory standing alone, and stood a high risk of being defeated, captured or killed by the revengeful Turks.
Meanwhile, Leopold Amery, then a 44-year-old member of parliament and an assistant 81 First to Damascus Jill, Duchess of Hamilton secretary to the War Cabinet, argued that although a million soldiers were from countries in the British Empire, these countries had no say in their management of their troops, or where they fought.
As a result, the Imperial War Cabinet was convened at 10 Downing Street after Lloyd George decided that the dominions should get a voice: ‘We feel that the time has come when the dominions ought to be more formally consulted…’.
Among the delegates was the South African representative, General Jan Smuts.
Twenty years earlier, he had been one of Britain’s enemies in the Boer War.
A deeply cultured man, educated at the universities of Holland, Heidelberg and Cambridge, he was a Zionist of the calibre of Balfour or Robert Cecil, and his presence strengthened the proZionist side in the War Cabinet.
Smuts argued that Palestine should be a British colony.
The Holy Land would create a ‘land bridge’ between India and Egypt, bringing together the empires of Africa and Asia.
In the atlases of the world, it would result in a non-stop ribbon of British Empire ‘pink’ between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.
Lloyd George, in his War Memoirs, wrote that Smuts had expressed ‘decided views as to the strategical importance of Palestine in the British Empire…’ This was similar to ideas expressed earlier by imperially minded Britons such as Lord Kitchener, who thought it was also a good northern barrier protecting the Suez Canal.
Plans for an even larger invasion into the Holy Land were soon under way.
The war was still going badly for the Allies in France.
Nobody knew for certain who would ultimately win.
Mutinies were threatening the fighting spirit of the French army, and the German and Austrian forces were about to break through the Italian lines.
The public still required a victory to offset the horrific news on the Western Front.
What could be more uplifting than the capture of the Holy Land – and making it a British colony? The de Bunsen committee put forward yet another reason for the Holy Land to be a British colony.
It recommended that Palestine be held so it could be used as a land route for troop movements from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf and India.
In addition, creating a Jewish homeland there could counter any French establishment in Syria – a rational reason to block the French from taking too much territory in the Levant.
Jews would also create a reliable and strong client population, and bring with them much outside investment.
The fact that the British were planning virtually a Jewish state within a country which was more than 90 per cent Arab was not seen then as a problem.
As Leo Amery’s edited diaries reveal, Smuts received a letter from Amery, saying that ‘if we are going to do a big thing quickly in the Palestine direction [we need] a more dashing general’.
An exasperated War Office sacked Murray.
Smuts was offered the command but refused it, his excuse being that he believed he would not be given enough troops.
But many thought he preferred his political role in London.
Allenby, who was second choice, at first thought his recall from France was because of his poor performance at Arras, where he had sustained immense losses for trivial gains.
Much to his surprise, when he reached London, instead of a reprimand he found he was to command the new thrust into the Holy Land.
When he visited 10 Downing Street, Lloyd George made the much-quoted remark that the capture of Jerusalem was wanted ‘as a Christmas present for the British nation’.
He had less than six months to get through the Gaza/Beersheba gateway, up the coast and over the hilly country to the Holy City.
Contrary to Smuts’ fears, he was told he would be given whatever reinforcements he required.
As will be seen, the numbers that Allenby thought necessary were highly inflated.
Once more, inaccurate intelligence reports as to the strength of the opposing 82 First to Damascus Jill, Duchess of Hamilton Turkish army would complicate the efforts of the British.
The Middle East presented a melancholy and alarming challenge. 83
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